Intel agencies ready to start deploying shared IT systems

Wednesday - 4/16/2014, 3:54am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says much of the groundwork has been laid, and it is now time to start deploying the project known as ICITE, a common IT environment for the entire intelligence community.

It has taken the ODNI and federal intelligence agencies two years, but intelligence agencies have already begun internal pilots of the individual components that will make up the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise — the shared architecture that the 17 IC agencies will use.

Individual agencies still will build mission-centric applications when they need to, but common functions like basic desktop software and business IT will converge into ICITE, and all of the agencies will store and share their data in a cloud- based environment.

"We're working on the business plan to allow each IC element to depend on the others for common services. This is a new paradigm for the intelligence community: we actually have to trust each other," Clapper said. "There were very few people who ever thought we could integrate our IT systems, but I think we're doing it, and I think keeping steady pressure on this will bring it to success. That's one of the big reasons why my principal deputy and I plan to stick around until the end of the administration to make sure ICITE sticks."

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (AP Photo/Richard Hamm)

Clapper spoke Tuesday at the annual GEOINT conference in Tampa, Fla., the same venue where, in 2011, he first announced plans to consolidate the intelligence community's disparate IT systems and reduce duplication.

Back then, he framed the decision primarily as a cost-saving move that would help the agencies he oversees cope with the first round of budget cuts in the aftermath of the Budget Control Act.

Now, he sees other benefits as front-and-center after the numerous intelligence disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. ICITE, Clapper said, will be inherently more secure than the IC's legacy data architectures. He believes it will also let agencies protect their data while resisting the urge to clamp down on sharing information beyond their own organizational boundaries.

"We've done a lot of locking down anyway," he said. "We're imposing more insider threat detection capabilities, we're changing our clearance system to one of continuous evaluation, etc. But this is why ICITE is so important. The mantra of ICITE is 'tag the data, tag the people.' If you do that, you know what data you're sharing, you know who you want to share it with and that they have the bona-fides to access it, and that you can automatically audit that. It will promote security, but also sharing. And, by the way, it will be cheaper. That's why I feel even more committed to getting ICITE done."

To build ICITE, the ODNI organized a division of labor between the largest agencies in the IC. The National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, for example, are building the community's shared cloud computing architecture.

Meanwhile, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency are working on a common desktop and suite of applications to be used throughout the IC.

About 5,000 of those desktops have already been deployed within NGA and DIA, Letitia Long, NGA's director, said in an interview.

"We're planning on finishing our two agencies by the end of this year, and in fiscal 2015, we will start deploying to other intelligence community organizations," she said.

Once those organizations are all operating in a common environment, any IC employee should be able to walk up to any computer terminal in any intelligence agency and get access to the same data he or she would be allowed to see at his or her own desk, Long said.

"It will enable something like teleworking," she said. "It's hard for us to work from home since we work in a classified environment, but we'll be able to work from different locations and much more readily share information at the data level. We can share information today by sending emails back and forth, but that's not integrating and fusing our information."

For the intelligence community's IT vendors, Clapper said ICITE will mean getting used to a new "business model." In terms of overall dollar figures, that new model's big picture will not be friendly to industry, since one of the tenets of ICITE is to reduce the IC's reliance on contractors.

"But there are going to be industry opportunities as we go to cloud computing," he said. "And in NSA's case, encryption and decryption are going to be important areas of research. I think we just all have to acknowledge the fact that we're going to have to be creative and capitalize on the technology trends we're trying to go to. But I can't sugarcoat this. Every year, we get a finite amount of money. And when that amount of money goes down, it has an impact on all of us."

Intelligence community leaders believe ICITE will go a long way toward fulfilling the goals policymakers set for their agencies in the era after the 9/11 attacks, creating a model of "integrated intelligence" among the various intelligence disciplines.

But Long said it will also let the IC move to a new phase, which she calls "immersive intelligence."

"Integrated intelligence means integrating the data, or even integrating your collection strategy on the front end in order to decide which agency is going to collect intelligence, and then fusing the data as you're working the analysis," she said. "Immersive intelligence is living within the data. It's readily available so that you can easily merge it into something else, and it just shows up because it's something that's in your profile and that you're working on. We can also create virtual spaces where you can meet up with not just the teammates within your agency, but also with your customer. How many times have we gotten a task, and we've worked it until the end, only to find out that the end product isn't really what was asked for? If you're together in that virtual space with your customer or your user, you're interacting together with the data. I think this gives us great promise for the future."

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